Shaktiwala sat crossed legged on the wooden platform above the bags of grain on prominent display in his shop. He surveyed the village and constant movement of people of different classes in the caste system as they made their way around the village carefully avoiding contact with each other and keeping within permitted limits. He was lost in thought as he contemplated his situation. Everyone had to eat so he was in the right trade for prosperity in this life cycle. Fate had been kind to him seeing him born in his current position and if he kept to the ceremonies and placated the gods in their complex order, he anticipated moving to the next level in the reincarnation process and eventual realization of his goal recognizing god within and union with the infinite spirit.
But life had thrown some curved balls at him which he had to deal with. Prem his former wife was no longer with him and his first son dead. He remembered last season when Om Baba had made his annual tour of the village with his entourage of men and women prostrating themselves whenever he turned to face and address them. He remembered Om Baba heading purposefully to the sacred tree where the village cobra resided in its splendour awaiting offerings of milk and grain. The cobra raised its head high in anticipation as Om Baba slowly approached and stopped. He raised his hand and paused staring at the cobra, then approached again staring at the cobra as he came. The cobra swayed from side to side as he approached, and Om Baba moved his head close, so their eyes were only inches apart then touched it with his nose. The cobra leaped back and subsided into a tight circle. Om Baba backed away and the crowd of followers and villagers watching gasped in admiration.
Then with the preliminaries of the visit accomplished he turned to his purpose for this annual village visit. His trusted retainers circled around the village collecting items of value for their guru and Shaktiwala watched in alarm as Om Baba approached his shop with a chela by his side.
Had he known the exact day of Om Baba’s appearance he’d have hidden his stock safely inside the house at the back of his shop and only left inferior grain in view of the village. Om Baba was a keen student of human nature and was always secretive about his village arrivals. Prem had been minding shop while Shaktiwala counted his takings for the day. Om Baba paused and pointed at the supplies he needed and shouted instructions to his chela who hastily scooped up the best grains into bags hanging from his shoulders. Then Om Baba fixed his eyes on Prem and she felt the power of his stare. She slowly rose from the platform and climbed down to the street locked into his hypnotic stare. He turned and she followed and joined with the crowd of followers as they left the village.
That had been several years ago. Shaktiwala had felt more for the loss of his pride than the loss of his wife. After all, there were other women he could wed to do work assigned each day and father his children. She’d walked away without any thought for the son she’d produced for him and now he’d have to rely on the servant woman to attend to raising his son while he looked for a permanent solution and wed again. The servant girl was from his caste, but her parents had fallen on hard times and while somewhat supported by relatives they’d farmed out their children as they couldn’t be cared for with limited means at their disposal. Shakuntala had been in essence sold to Shaktiwala and they’d treated her not as family but as a servant. She’d worked hard cleaning, cooking and looking after Shaktiwala’s young son and even occasionally tended shop when Prem was too tired to answer Shaktiwala’s summons. It was an arrangement between families not a love marriage and Prem did not fit the image of a supporting Hindu wife. After her disappearance with Om Baba Shaktiwala had considered approaching for her sister in marriage but experience with Prem persuaded him to look elsewhere.
In the meantime, Shaktiwala had added satisfaction of his physical needs to demands on Shakuntala’s role in the home and for the first time in his life he began to have feelings for this servant woman he’d never had for Prem. This placed him in turmoil. Even though she was of his caste the village looked on her as merely a servant. The village people were already laughing behind his back at Prem’s pursuit of Om Baba. How would they feel if he took Shakuntala as a legitimate wife when she was in their eyes only of servant class?
The year after Prem’s departure Om Baba made his annual appearance at the village with his retinue of followers and out of curiosity Shaktiwala looked for evidence of Prem travelling with those followers but she was not there. Probably ended up in one of the temples he thought.
Shaktiwala’s son Chandrakant ran out with the rest of the village children to watch the tamasha and pressed in through the front of the crowd as Om Baba faced the cobra for his annual demonstration of power. Chandrakant pressed in close to watch and was suddenly captured in the hypnotic presence of the occasion. He moved in beside Om Baba as the mystic touched the snake with his head. The cobra lunged back as usual and this time struck forward and attached itself to Chandrakant. Om Baba turned in anger at the interruption and motioned for the retainers to move around the village making the annual collection.
Chandrakant ran toward his father’s stall and sought out Shakuntala who cradled him in her arms as life departed from him. Wailing loudly when he died Shakuntala beat on her breast after his life had departed. Shaktiwala was a hard man but the loss of his son was more than he could bear, and he wailed loudly along with her while villagers gathered around in sympathy. With his son dead who would be there to light the funeral pyre on his own eventual death so he could make it into the next stage of reincarnation?
That evening he took his solace in the arms of his servant Shakuntala. He saw how she’d shared his grief at the loss of his son, and he was grateful for it. This was not his usual act of self-gratification but a coming together in a shared moment of grief. When she got up to leave as usual and go to her humble room Shaktiwala took her arm and pulled her back. He needed her strength and support that night, and an overwhelming feeling of peace came over him in her company he’d never experienced with Prem. He’d been brought up by a hard taskmaster father and had never seen love exhibited in the home as he grew so was puzzled by his present feelings.
This was an unusual experience for Shakuntala, and she lay there silently wondering what was expected of her now. Shaktiwala put his arm around her for solace and she lay awake as he slept.
In the morning Shakuntala eased herself from under his arm and went to commence her duties as the day broke. There was masala to mix and food to prepare but first she needed to find a neem stick to clean her teeth with its loose fibres and go through her daily cleaning rituals. She was just finishing these routines when Shaktiwala appeared to begin the day with cleansing and worship. She averted her eyes as usual. She was a servant, and he was the master, so she waited with head bowed for him to pass. But everything was different, and she was confused. To be in the master’s bed all night was unthinkable. She was only there for his immediate pleasure not with the privileges of a wife she thought. But he led her back to his room.
Three months later Shakuntala was sure of the strange feelings within her. She had become accustomed to her change in circumstances but was fearful to tell her master what she now knew was the cause of these strange feelings. He’d be so angry, and she’d heard of the procedures performed on other servants in the village to see this did not happen again to embarrass their masters. But eventually he had to find out, so she bravely whispered her concerns as they lay together at night. To her surprise Shaktiwala was not angry and to her further surprise in the morning he instructed her to find a servant to replace her in the little room she’d formerly occupied. She would now occupy the position Prem had once enjoyed.
A priest was summonsed and Shakuntala questioned. The priest did calculations based on what he’d discovered in conversation with Shaktiwala and Shakuntala and pronounced them suitably matched by the stars. An auspicious time was chosen for a shadi to be celebrated.
Now Shaktiwala had to decide and that is why he now sat cross legged on his wooden platform staring out at the village having completed his memories. How would the villagers take it if he announced his intention to marry Shakuntala? Would he be shunned and laughed at for marrying a servant? But she was of his caste and he now had strong feelings for her. He was looking forward to the appearance of a son, so the matter had to be resolved.
Shakuntala appeared to offer him limbu parni as he sat waiting for customers. She was dressed in one of the beautiful saris he’d purchased for her and had a flower embedded in her shining black hair perfectly groomed. She smiled at him then averted her eyes and turned to leave to supervise their new servant. Shaktiwala glanced with appreciation at her bulging stomach and made his decision. Come what may, he must have this woman to be his wife.
No one in the village had any comments to make when they saw notables of the village gathered in the pandal to celebrate the union of Shaktiwala and Shakuntala. It had already been assumed for some time they were husband and wife even without today’s ceremony. As the food was consumed and ample remains of that feast was shared with those not invited to the wedding blessings were bestowed on them both by the whole village.
The union was blessed with the expected son and under suggestions from Shakuntala they named him Chandrakant. Over the happy years to follow six more sons and one daughter were added to the family and the bond between Shaktiwala and Shakuntala solidified with each of these added children.
Shaktiwala died at a ripe old age and as custom would have it Chandrakant the eldest son lit the funeral pyre to release his soul on its migratory journey. Shakuntala lived a few years more to watch with pride as her eldest son expanded business and acquired more settling his brothers in prosperity with their own families.
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